BOOK REVIEW: The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic Book Scare and How it Changed America 

Subversive Reading: David Hajdu recounts the controversial beginnings of comic book history

The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic Book Scare and How it Changed America [Buy Now]
By David Hajdu
FSG, $26, 448 pages

There’s this moment in the 1954 United States Subcommittee on Investigating Juvenile Delinquency hearings when publisher Bill Gaines, strung out on caffeine, Dexedrine, and a lack of sleep, was shown the cover of the April/May 1954 issue of Crime SuspenStories and asked to comment on whether it was in poor taste. The cover illustration, by Johnnie Craig, is a close-up shot, waist level, of a man holding a bloody axe and a severed head, with a body at his feet.

We don’t know what ran through the publisher’s mind when Sen. Estes Kefauver waved the cover at him, but over the preceding days and weeks, Gaines had been bullied, harassed, wracked with anxiety over losing his company, and taunted by a smirking Fredric Wertham, M.D., who proclaimed that comic books — in particular the crime and horror brand published by Gaines — were rotting the minds of American youth.

And so Gaines more or less opined that no, poor taste would necessitate the artist tilting the neck so the reader could see all the goop dripping out .

It all went south from there.

In The Ten Cent Plague, author David Hajdu does a fair job of balancing the story of the infamous Kefauver hearings, Seduction of the Innocent, and the subsequent “Approved by the Comics Code Authority” self-policing of the comic book industry.

Much of the tale told herein is well known to older aficionados of the funny book world. There really were mass burnings of comic books in the 1940s and 1950s, just as there would later be mass burnings of Beatles albums when Lennon let slip the secret that the Fab Four had become more popular than Jesus.

Where Hajdu breaks new ground is in detailing many of the lesser known stories of comic book writers, artists, and publishers ruined in the postwar era by media-fueled fears of “subversion” and “delinquency.”

Concern about “juvenile delinquency,” as the author points out, began in earnest during World War II, as the press began to investigate what effect the war, and the fatherless households it produced, was having on American families. Though experts often contested the exact nature of, and statistics on, juvenile delinquency, by the early 1950s, it was unarguably one of the hottest topics discussed in newspapers, magazines, and on that newfangled medium, television. Child psychiatrist Fredric Wertham raked a lot of muck by publishing article after article (not in professional medical journals, but rather in Ladies’ Home Journal and like periodicals) denouncing comic books prior to writing Seduction of the Innocent, his attack on what he perceived as a corrupting influence.

Hajdu presents Wertham as building his own fame by attacking what was already widely popular, especially in youth culture, going for an easy tsk-tsk, ain’t-it-such-a-shame-about-kids-these-days knee-jerk reaction from his readers. And comic books were without a doubt extremely popular in the 1940s and early 1950s. They were easy entertainment, fun to read, and only cost a dime apiece.

On the other hand, the subversive potential of cartoon art has long been recognized: Caricatures of political leaders and authority figures subtly undermine castle walls. Through parody and satire, the powerless mock the airs of the powerful. As Hajdu notes, that cynicism toward authority was one of Wertham’s main gripes with comic books. With that said, of course, those searching for subversive subtext in the comic books of the 1940s and ’50s did not have to dig too deep, even in the superhero stories. Cover images of Wonder Woman and other heroines in bondage were not uncommon, the teenage sidekick of Captain America was pretty handy with a submachine gun, and it was nothing to see a caped crusader tossing a buxom moll over his shoulder with a promise of hanky-panky in the closing panels of a story.

And the horror and crime comics, in particular those published by Gaines, frankly took the kind of lurid material that was moving books off the shelf and ran with it. With comic books largely perceived as entertainment for children, cause for concern skyrocketed.

Charges of indecent literature followed EC’s launch of Panic (similar to Mad magazine) in December 1953. The premiere issue featured a twisted rendition of the beloved Clement Clarke Moore poem “’Twas Night before Christmas.” The satire, with its maniacal illustrations, prompted an outcry for banning Panic on the grounds that it was “pagan” and “desecrated Christmas.”

The barrage of negativism took its toll on even the best creative talents in comics. Will Eisner caught the cold shoulder at Manhattan cocktail parties when the topic of what he did for a living came up. Top artists were cast out as work dried up. Jack Cole, creator of the whimsical hero Plastic Man, committed suicide despite a brief run as an illustrator for Playboy.

The flurry of creative energy that marked the rise of the American comic book from the late 1930s to the early 1950s fell away, rather anticlimactically. The industry elected to police itself rather than suffer the government regulation that many feared would result from the Kefauver hearings.

The Comics Code Authority brought on a brief era of rather vanilla content in comic books, i.e., those who stepped outside the law were always shown to be swiftly and rightly punished for their transgressions. Under no circumstances could an authority figure or elected official be depicted as engaging in unethical behavior of any sort. And so on.

(Meanwhile, in the hollows of forgotten places all across the land, a resistance was brewing; stories more true to life and as irrespective of established authority as anything EC had conjured were simmering in the minds of writers and artists, ready for release ... but that’s a later story, from the 1960s and ’70s, outside the scope of The Ten-Cent Plague).

Of course, it’s fair to ask what actually changed or what evil was done away with as a result of the 1940s-50s era attack on comic books. Violence and delinquency perennially enjoy a vast following in the U.S., and every new season yields yet another scapegoat (comic books, television, movies, video games, the internet, rock ‘n’ roll, religion, unhappy childhoods) to be offered up as the cause of it all.

With that in mind, The Ten-Cent Plague reads not simply as an account of a strange and distant time when massive stacks of vintage comic books were tossed unto bonfires while the local PTA led the town in song, but rather it reads as a roadmap of the regrettable paths taken by people following the pipers who tell them who or what to blame.


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